Venezuela breaks relations with Colombia as Saturday border protests leave 285 injured

Feb 23, 2019

A protestor faces police cordon Saturday at the Venezuela-Colombia border.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro broke diplomatic relations Saturday with Colombia as tensions escalated along the two countries’ borders, where international aid intended for Venezuela is awaiting transport. Maduro has vowed to stop the aid from coming into the country.

These are the highlights from Saturday:

  • The Colombian foreign minister said 285 people were hurt, with 37 requiring hospitalization, after the Venezuelan National Guard fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters near the Colombian border.
  • Trucks carrying supplies were blocked at most spots, but two trucks carrying Brazilian humanitarian aid crossed into Venezuela on Saturday without incident, the office of communications for the Brazilian presidency said.
  • At least 60 members of Venezuela’s military fled the Maduro regime on Saturday.
  • At a rally in the capital of Caracas, Maduro said he was breaking relations with neighboring Colombia and threatened the United States with military action.
  • Opposition leader Juan Guaido, speaking at the border with Colombia, urged people to keep working to bring in aid shipments.

Venezuelan soldiers faced off against protesters who were demanding to cross the border at Ureña to go work in Colombia, according to a CNN crew that witnessed the scene at the Tienditas Bridge.

President Nicolas Maduro addresses large crowd in Caracas.

The protesters chanted, “We want to work!” as the National Guard fired tear gas to disperse them. Men with shirts covering their faces started throwing rocks toward the guard members.

CNN’s team in Ureña witnessed Venezuelan Armed Forces fire tear gas at three members of the opposition-leaning National Assembly while they were attempting a peaceful mediation with protesters.

Journalist Stefano Pozzebon said three congressmen, two men and one woman, raised their hands in the air Saturday afternoon and started slowly walking toward a human barricade of Venezuelan armed forces when the soldiers fired tear gas at them. The members of congress then pulled back to a safe location among the protesters.

Amnesty International called for Venezuela to stop attacking its citizens, saying, “Armed attacks against the population constitute serious human rights violations and crimes under international law.”

Also Saturday, humanitarian aid moved through the Brazilian-Venezuelan border in Pacaraima, according to Maria Teresa Belandria, Venezuela’s opposition-appointed ambassador to Brazil.

But trucks were stopped at other border points, and two trucks attempting to cross into Venezuela from Colombia went up in flames on Saturday, according to three witnesses who told a CNN team near the border.

Witnesses said the two trucks were set on fire as Venezuelan security forces were firing tear gas against volunteers unloading aid on the Francisco de Paula bridge. CNN cannot independently confirm the incident or the circumstances of how the two trucks were set on fire.

Maduro denies that a humanitarian crisis exists in Venezuela and suggests that aid efforts are part of a US plot to orchestrate a coup.

A Venezuelan military defector is escorted into Colombia by police.

Saturday, Maduro called on Venezuelans to “mobilize.” “Let’s all take to the streets to defend our independence with conscience and joy,” the embattled Venezuelan President said on his official Twitter account.

At a large rally in Caracas, he dared the opposition to call for elections and called Guaido a “clown” and a “US puppet.”

Maudro told supporters he is breaking all diplomatic relations with Colombia and is calling for its ambassadors and consuls to leave Venezuela.

He gave the Colombian ambassadors and consuls 24 hours to get out of the country.

“My patience has run out. I can’t continue to tolerate the aggressions against Venezuela that are being carried out by the Colombian government,” Maduro said.

He also threatened the United States: “If the empire dares to attack, they will be received by the strength of the Venezuelan armed forces.”

Meanwhile, opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself acting president last month, said that some are looking to block access to aid by generating violence.

“We have peaceful intentions regarding this humanitarian and multilateral effort,” Guaido said, speaking Saturday in front of aid trucks on the Colombia-Venezuela border. He described it as a “peaceful effort that wants to save lives.”

Guaido tweeted later Saturday that aid had reached Venezuelan territory, including an image of trucks blocked by the military.

“Attention Venezuela!” he said on Twitter. “We announced that the trucks of humanitarian aid from Colombia are already in Venezuela territory. The usurper regime is blocking them. They will not be able with our irreversible decision to live in freedom.”

More than 60 Venezuelan security forces defected to Colombia, Colombia Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said in a news conference from Cucuta on Saturday. Among them were two members of the Bolivarian National Guard who fled with their families, Colombian immigration authorities said.

A Venezuelan man also “turned himself in,” Colombian immigration authorities said.

Some of the troops abandoned their posts at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge on the Colombia-Venezuela border and requested help from Colombia’s immigration department.

Guaido said he “welcomes those soldiers that are on the constitution’s side.” He called for Venezuelan forces to join the “right side of history.”

The opposition leader later tweeted a video he said shows Venezuelan soldiers saluting him as their commander in chief. “There will be amnesty and guarantees for those who take the side of the people,” he said on Twitter.

Two trucks trying to bring humanitarian aid into the country were burned, Colombian authorities said.

A standoff over aid delivery led to violence Friday at a Venezuelan town near the border with Brazil, killing two people and injuring 17 others, local authorities said.

The violence occurred between a local indigenous community and the military near Gran Sabana, said the town’s mayor, Emilio Gonzalez. He told CNN the military opened fire on an indigenous group trying to facilitate the passage of aid into Venezuela.

Gonzalez said soldiers shot and killed a 34-year-old indigenous Venezuelan woman and injured 17 others.

National Assembly member Americo De Grazia said on his official Twitter feed that two people had died. The second victim was an indigenous man, according to De Grazia.

Venezuela’s Ministry of Defense told CNN it had no information on the incident.

After the military opened fire, an indigenous group in Gran Sabana detained 40 National Guard soldiers, Gonzalez said.

Shots were fired overnight in the center of the town, where residents put up barricades while members of the National Guard drove in armored vehicles, Gonzalez said. The skirmishes brought the town to a total shutdown, he said.

Earlier this week, Guaido named Saturday as the deadline for the aid to cross the border.

Guaido has been working with a raft of global partners to bring Venezuelans desperately needed food and medical supplies. The White House urged the Venezuelan military to allow aid into the country in a statement Friday.

“The United States strongly condemns the Venezuelan military’s use of force against unarmed civilians and innocent volunteers on Venezuela’s border with Brazil,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

“Egregious violation of human rights by Maduro and those who are following his orders will not go unpunished. The United States strongly urges the Venezuelan military to uphold its constitutional duty to protect the citizens of Venezuela. The Venezuelan military must allow humanitarian aid to peacefully enter the country. The world is watching.”

The United States announced Friday that it was preparing to bring in aid through another route.

“The US and its partners began pre-positioning additional humanitarian aid for Venezuelans in Boa Vista, Brazil,” the US State Department tweeted.

The aid consists of food kits “containing rice, beans, sugar, and salt to feed nearly 3,500 people for 10 days and additional rice to feed an estimated 6,100 people for one month,” a fact sheet from the State Department says.

The United States has so far delivered batches of relief supplies to a border town in Colombia, including food and hygiene kits, ready-to-use supplementary foods and high-energy biscuits. It’s pledged $20 million to help Venezuela, and other countries including Canada, the UK and Germany have chipped in, too.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said Saturday that aid piled up in his country should be allowed into Venezuela.

“We demand that its entry is allowed in a peaceful manner to the Venezuelan territory for the benefit of those who need it,” said Duque, standing alongside Guaido at a press conference in Cucuta, Colombia, near the Venezuelan border.

“Preventing its entry is an attack against the human rights and could constitute a crime against humanity.”

Duque added that the international aid has been handed over to Guaido.

“Denying entry has represented so far a systematic violation to the minimal conditions of life of the Venezuelan people. Today, we are doing a multilateral exercise of peaceful and humanitarian nature; about the results of this process, the usurper Nicolas Maduro will be responsible of any violence acts,” he said.

“We ask the armed forces of Venezuela to be on the right side of history and receive your brothers and sisters that are taking humanitarian aid to assist the people of Venezuela.”

British billionaire Richard Branson sponsored a Live Aid-inspired show Friday in Cucuta, featuring Latin American stars such as Colombian musical legends Carlos Vives and Juanes, and reggaeton singer Maluma.

Maduro staged a rival concert a few hundred meters away on the Venezuelan side of the bridge in Tachira.

Credit: CNN,

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